image by 0olong
Reading, to those who see books as living, breathing things, is not an optional activity. It is not a hobby, nor something one does only to kill time. It is not a weekend-only, or vacation-only task. It is as essential as breathing, to be done as much as possible, in whatever place, in whatever circumstances.
When you are a reader, and not merely someone who likes to read, the abundance of choice is as overwhelming as it is a blessing. But at some point, even the fastest and most dedicated reader realises that there is simply not enough time to read everything one wants to read. There is simply not enough life to sample every book one comes across, to taste and devour everything that has been described as “must-read” throughout the ages.
We are then forced to narrow down our selection. Unfortunately, there is no single list for Those-Who-Want-to-Read-Everything-But-Not-Have-Enough-Life. Each of us are left to our own devices. We may take advice from others, or try to follow those who have gone before us, but that almost always results in disappointment. The best books for us, the things we must read before we die, can only come from within us – based on who we are, what we want to learn and know, the stories we want to enjoy, and the stories that resonate within us.
There is no single definition for what these best books are, as they would inevitably be different for each of us. Perhaps some may overlap; some perennial favourites like Pride and Prejudice or the Lord of the Rings may make many lists, and yet they will still be left out from others. So how can you decide?
How can you determine what books you should spend your limited life span on?
Ben Okri, in his essay titled, Newton’s Child1 provides one of the best descriptions I’ve come across:
“The best kinds of books, however, have a delightful mystery about them. They inexplicably create powerful feelings, images, moods, worlds, and parallel narratives the farther away in time you are from the reading. They grow in time. They keep re-creating themselves in your consciousness, they keep growing, keep becoming other books, till they become part of your experience, like something lived, or dreamed, or loved, or suffered.
Further encounters with suck books make them more. There is no final point of understanding with books that live.
Their effects cannot be aspired to. And writers can never be altogether sure that they have indeed created this rare and living thing. For their mysterious effect can only be felt silently, in the secret chambers of consciousness, in the depths of sleep and forgetfulness, in states of being where the magic of the words can work unseen. This kind of writing keeps living through time, through generations, through stories people tell one another, through our solitudes and moods, and through the ways in which such books make us more creative as we live and change and grow – or even as we face the prospect of dying.”
Of course, one can only know for sure that the book is of the best kind, after one has read it. How does it help narrowing our selection?
From our previous experiences. Think about the best kind of books you’ve read so far. Which books, which characters, which stories, which lessons have lingered in your mind, long after you finished the book? Which books have grown with you over time, or taken a firm place in your heart and remained never changing? Which books still make you smile in the same place, though you have smiled that smile a hundred times? Which books make you worry for the character in peril even during repeated readings, when you already know what happens?
Which books you cannot stop talking about, insisting to others that they must read them, and when they don’t feel the same as you about the greatness of these books, the only reaction you have is complete bafflement?
Which books have impacted you enough that you’ve reflected on the way you think, or the way you behave, or who you are? Which books have inspired you and encouraged you? Which books have mentored you?
Titles that make up answers to these questions would be your best kind of books. Look at these titles, and they in turn would lead you to other titles that may yet come to be your future best kind of books.
- Newton’s Child, A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Pages 25, 26)